Like locusts descending on a crop of video games and awesome swag, so do gamers descend on the halls of the Washington Convention Center for the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX as it’s commonly known. This year’s PAX was a great success as always, with plenty of fantastic booths, thought-provoking panels, fun freebies, and – of course – all the games you could shake a stick at.
Last year, I gave a detailed blow-by-blow of my three days in Seattle, down to the nitty-gritty of each individual panel. This year, I’m scaling it back a bit with an overview of the highlights, lowlights, and “dang it, I missed that?” moments that make PAX both engaging and frustrating in the best possible way.
The Games – Obviously, PAX offers a fantastic selection of games and demos to spend your weekend enjoying, from obscure XBLA titles and student demos to enormous and elaborate booths dedicated to triple-A titles. I already knew going into it that I was not leaving the convention without playing Mass Effect 3, and it did not disappoint, with intense combat and new AI keeping even this veteran ME player on her toes. Assassin’s Creed Revelations was also very enjoyable, and boasted a surprisingly short line; while the loss of the compass was confusing, I was assured that it will be there in the final game. Oddly enough, I had a great time with a lot of Nintendo’s offerings. From the tried-and-true formulas behind Zelda: Skyward Sword and Mario Kart 3DS to the quirky Japanese nature of Rhythm Heaven Wii to the, “Wait, holy crap, someone finally localized this?!” moment of Fortune Street (think Monopoly meets Dragon Warrior and Mario, literally; previous iterations of the game had DQ and Final Fantasy characters instead). There were also tons of card and board game rooms, and my friend and I spent an enjoyable hour or so playing Ascension. Having said all that, a lot of my favourite gaming moments were actually through…
The Indies – PAX has always had a lot of literally fringe indie activity (as indie devs are usually clustered at the fringes of the expo halls), but this is the first year I spent quality time with them… and it was well worth it. This year boasted some really great indie titles on display with some really interesting mechanics. One of my favorites was Fez, a long-developed indie title which plays around with dimensions and rotating the stage to help progress. I also liked Snapshot, a beautifully animated platformer/puzzler involving taking photographs of items and “pasting” them onto the landscape. Word Fighter was a concept so brilliantly simple you’ll wonder why no one thought of it: combine Scrabble and Bejeweled and have players face off competitively to beat each other to death with words. Lastly, Warp was an adorable and challenging puzzle/action game involving creative uses of teleportation to warp quickly through barrels, enemies and so on.
The Panels – I went to fewer panels this year as compared to last year, but the ones I did attend were top notch. Of particular interest was the panel on tabletop RPG design, with discussions on how best to playtest (among other things, be sure to check on forums and find playtesters you can trust), how long it takes to create an RPG (anywhere from 2 years to 2 hours!) and online publishing vs. self-published print books. Another great panel was “The Sorting Panel” which displayed a very cheesy, Sega CD style game and challenged attendees to write about it with the idea of being sorted into journalism/blogging/PR/etc and getting critiqued (Yours Truly apparently uses passive voice too much!) I also enjoyed the RPG writing and NC Soft writing panels and found the panellists interesting, intelligent and fun to talk to afterwards!
Acquisitions Inc. – This year, I swore I was going to see at least one of the “big name” panels with either Gabe and Tycho or Wil Wheaton, and in the end I ended up seeing them all at once. Playing D&D. In costume. With Scott Kurtz from PvP. And with Paul and Storm providing musical backup. Did I mention this was probably one of the best and funniest panels of the show? While I’m pretty sure it was at least partly scripted – it seemed a bit more theatrical than your average game – it was still absolutely hilarious from beginning to end. Wil Wheaton was particularly on point with an endless litany of pithy one liners, in-character and out-of-character whining (“Hey, remember the time I DIED?!”) and basically running away with the show. Gabe was also hilarious as the utterly amoral and selfish wizard Jim Darkmagic (*whispers* Jim Darkmagic!) who was summoned to his family for the reading of his grandfather’s will. What followed was bizarre and hilarious (it involved hamburger meat!) and utterly awesome. And the music was great too (“Critical miiiss! Critical miss!”)
The Swag – PAX has the best loot ever. Turn a corner and there’s someone thrusting Tshirts, water bottles and buttons into your hand. I staggered out with three canvas bags, four T shirts, an inflatable Omniblade from ME3, an N7 tattoo, a monster manual, five lanyards and a partridge in a pear tree.
The Friendliness – The best thing by far about PAX is just how friendly everyone is, how willing geeks of all shapes, stripes, genders and colors are happy to turn to a stranger and start up a random conversation. It’s what makes the lowlight below bearable, the fact that you can just strike up debates and chats with anyone and not feel like some sort of creep or jerk. We’re all willing to talk, we’re all willing to listen, and we’re all in this line together. Speaking of lines…
The Lines – One of my only big complaints about PAX is that, for a lot of the “good” panels, games etc, you have to spend at least two hours waiting in line for them, which is pretty darn infuriating when you’re at a game convention with awesome blaring games at every corner and a million other things you could be doing. The Expo Hall is particularly bad; while the panel lines at least allow you to sit and relax with your laptops or handhelds, the lines for Skyrim, The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3 will keep you standing at attention and crammed in by stern-looking Enforcers for ages on end while your feet protest louder and louder. And let’s not get into the indignities of being forced to stand in line for two hours before the expo hall opens in order to be one of the first to stand in line at another booth (Most rage-ful moment for me: standing in line for two hours for the expo hall to get to The Old Republic, only to reach it and be told the line was already cut off.) The worst part is is that it would be so simple to fix: rather than making someone wait in line until 2:00 PM, give them a ticket that says, “come back at 2:00 PM” so they can go check out the rest of the con. It works for Tokyo Game Show, it can work here, and it would be a welcome change.
The Enforcers – Don’t get me wrong, I love the enforcers (i.e. PAX volunteers). They’re friendly, helpful, and amazingly willing to go out of their way to help. Having said that, they can also be as disorganized as heck, as I found out not once but twice on the first day. First I was looking for a lanyard for my pass – a pretty obvious and common thing to want – only to find that none of the Enforcers I asked knew where they were being handed out; in fact, I ended up almost leading a convoy of confused Enforcers and PAX attendees in a hunt for them. Less than an hour later, I asked where the handheld tournament signup was – again, a reasonably major event – and was met with blanks stares and confused phone calls to home base. I couldn’t be that annoyed, as in both cases the Enforcers in question were determined to learn the answer for future lost con-goers, but would it hurt to hand out a FAQ to the poor guys and girls before the con?
The Scheduling – Part of my main problem with PAX as an entire entity is that it has entirely too much awesomeness going on at once, to the point where it’s actually kind of annoying. For example, the expo hall only stays open from 10 to 6… and when do they have most of the interesting panels? You guessed it, right at the same time. Why not have the panels fron 6-9 or something? Still, I could buy that that may not be doable and that they just have to have everything going on at once… but really, PAX? Having two games journalism panels going on at almost the exact same time?! Did it not occur to you that the majority of people interested in one would be interested in the other? That’s like having a fan panel with David Tennant at the same time as a panel discussion with the writers from Doctor Who, only worse, because these are professionally relevant advice panels. If you’re going to host “How to be a Games Journalist/Writer/Community Manager/Designer/Wearer of Many Hats”, you’d better do the class a favour and split that stuff up to different times.
The Tournament – well, not a problem with PAX or anything, but a gentle reminder that getting paired up against the world Dissidia tournament champion in the first round? SUCKS. I am still collecting the tattered shards of my ego and unpeeling my poor Sephiroth from the wall where he was splattered.
- Missing the Extra Credits panel. I’m a giant EC fangirl, and yet I somehow got turned around and didn’t see their panel on the schedule. At least I stood behind Dan in the line at the Amtrak station in Vancouver and bumped into James on the way out!
- Missing the Citizen Skywatch booth, apparently connected loosely to XCOM. This booth was the talk of the show as it was set up like a 1960’s “red scare” scenario with totally in-character actors in period dress barking orders, demanding to know if you were a communist, making you do Rorscarch tests or pushups, etc. At the end, you got a government ID badge with a blurry photo of you and your specialties (my friend’s was “knitting and procrastinating”) Best booth in the show, and I missed it.
- Missing the Jonathan Coulton concert because of work. Don’t tell me that he sang Want You Gone, I don’t think I could take the disappointment.
- Not getting to try The Old Republic. Because, you know, I need SOMETHING to pull me away from World of Warcraft.
What did you check out at PAX 2011? What were your highlights and lowlights? What did you wish you’d had time to check out?